Is a Lawsuit Possible If Sexual Abuse Happened a Long Time Ago?

The law in your state might give survivors of childhood sexual abuse extra time to seek justice in court.

By , J.D.

Many survivors of childhood sexual abuse report that the resulting trauma is not only devastating, but also difficult to face. It can take years, even decades for survivors to process and come to terms with the abuse or assault, and getting to a place of comfort and resolve when it comes to taking action over what happened can represent another (often long-term) challenge.

This brings a couple of key legal issues into focus, related to a survivor's right to file a lawsuit against an abuser, and/or against those who failed to meet their legal duties in connection with the abuse:

  • the "statute of limitations," which is a law that sets a firm deadline on the right to file a lawsuit in court, or otherwise risk losing that right, and
  • special laws aimed at enhancing survivors' legal options, including extensions of filing deadlines and so-called "lookback windows" that let survivors file a lawsuit years after abuse, even where the applicable statute of limitations deadline may have passed.

The Statute of Limitations for Childhood Sexual Abuse Lawsuits

In most states, there is either a dedicated statute of limitations that applies to civil lawsuits over sexual abuse that occurred when the plaintiff was a minor, or a statute of limitations that covers all sexual abuse lawsuits, and which includes special provisions for incidents that occurred before the plaintiff reached adulthood.

This latter variety might contain more lenient deadlines and/or a "discovery rule" that acts as an extension of the deadline in situations where trauma resulting from childhood abuse or assault was suppressed, or memories were otherwise unrecalled, so that the nature and extent of psychological harm and other impacts ("damages" in legalese) was not realized.

The variety and sheer number of rules at play from state to state make it impossible to provide much detail here when it comes to statutes of limitations. But let's look at laws passed in a few states in recent years, related to survivors' rights and options.

In Arizona, a state law passed in 2019 is aimed at protecting the rights and options of survivors of childhood sexual abuse, by:

  • extending the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse, giving certain survivors until the age of 30 to file a civil lawsuit, and
  • creating a so-called "lookback window" reviving the option to file a civil lawsuit for certain survivors whose right to do so had expired; that window closed on December 31, 2020, but future legislation could give more Arizona survivors more options.

In California, the Child Victims Act, passed in 2020:

  • effectively extends the statute of limitations lawsuit-filing timeline for childhood sexual abuse lawsuits in many instances
  • creates the prospect for enhanced "damages" for childhood sexual abuse/assault lawsuits that involve allegations of "cover up" conduct, and
  • creates a three-year "lookback window" that revives the right to sue for survivors who lost that option; the window closes on January 1, 2023.

In New Jersey, under a new law that took effect in 2019:

  • survivors of child sexual abuse can file a lawsuit against an abuser—and/or against negligent institutions like churches—at any time prior to their 55th birthday, or seven years from the discovery of harm, whichever is later, and
  • a temporary legislative lookback window (which closed in November 2021) let all survivors of sexual abuse (whether minors or adults at the time of the abuse) file a lawsuit against the abuser and/or against any institution that covered up or enabled the assault, no matter when the harm occurred.

In New York, lawmakers passed the Child Victims Act in 2019, which:

  • extended the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits arising from childhood sexual abuse, so that survivors can now file this kind of civil case at any time until they reach 55 years of age, and
  • created a temporary lookback window (which closed in August 2021).

In North Carolina, the Sexual Assault Fast Reporting and Enforcement (SAFE Child) Act, passed in 2019, added a number of new legislative mandates related to childhood sexual abuse, including:

  • expanded the duty to report all "reasonably suspected child abuse" to all adults, regardless of relationship to the child (so that church leaders, camp counselors, coaches, and others have a mandatory duty to report suspected abuse),
  • extended the statute of limitations for filing a civil lawsuit over childhood sexual abuse, so that most survivors can bring a case until the age of 28, and
  • created a lookback window, which closed in December 2021.

These are just a few examples—by no means an exhaustive list. Other states have enacted similar laws, and legislators in a number of states are currently debating the passage of laws that extend and enhance the rights of abuse survivors. For details on the current law in your state, talk with a local attorney or conduct your own research. And finally, remember that laws change, so the accuracy of the information provided here is subject to change as well.

2022 Law Eliminates Federal Statute of Limitations for Childhood Sex Abuse Lawsuits

In September 2022, President Biden signed the Eliminating Limits to Justice for Child Sex Abuse Victims Act into law. This act removes the statute of limitations for any civil lawsuit brought by a claimant who was a minor at the time they experienced a human trafficking or federal sex offense. Now, survivors of these kinds of federal offenses can file a civil action to recover damages at any time, without worrying that the statute of limitations deadline has passed.

What About Deadlines for Filing Criminal Charges?

A "statute of limitations" also applies to criminal proceedings, which are entirely separate from the civil lawsuit process, even when the same conduct or set of circumstances is the basis for both types of legal action. But, as with civil statutes of limitations over childhood sexual abuse, a number of states have also extended the criminal statute of limitations that applies to these kinds of cases.

For example, in New York, the Child Victims Act gives survivors until their 28th birthday to press criminal charges against an abuser. And in California, when potential charges include felony sexual assault of a minor, there is no criminal statute of limitations, meaning criminal charges can be brought at any time.

To understand your legal options in relation to the laws in your state, it might make sense to discuss your situation with an attorney. Any initial consultation is usually free, and everything you and the attorney discuss is (and remains) confidential, regardless of whether you end up working together. Connect with an attorney now using the tools right on this page, or learn more about finding the right attorney for you.

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